August 14, 2008
Former Dragons welcomed back
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland offensive linemen go helmet to helmet Wednesday as pre-season drills got under way at the Stadium Complex. The Red Dragons open the season Sept. 6 at Morrisville.
By ALAN BUTLER
When Mark Schaller first arrived on the SUNY Cortland campus before his freshman semester for pre-season football practice back in the summer of 2004, the first person he met was Josh Jablonski.
The two defensive players were pre-season roommates that year.
Now fast-forward to the present day and both players still have something in common, still share a common thread. Both were making comebacks of sorts as Red Dragon workouts for the upcoming 2008 campaign got underway Wednesday afternoon at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.
Jablonski, an outside linebacker and school career record holder in blocked kicks, is coming out of a retirement for one final fling with the Red Dragons after an ankle injury seemed to have ended his career.
The 24-year-old from Buffalo, who started his Red Dragon career as a frosh in 2002, has decided to cash in on a remaining semester of eligibility. Having red-shirted due to a freshman injury and then receiving hardship status from the NCAA during his last stint as a Red Dragon two years ago provided the opportunity.
Schaller, looking to earn a starting spot in the Red Dragon defensive secondary, has not played football for the past two autumns. The native of Rochester opted to concentrate on basketball as a junior and a senior, and was a tenacious and productive point guard for Coach Tom Spanbauer.
After discovering he still had some football eligibility remaining as he returns to graduate school in Cortland, to eventually earn a Masters Degree in Health, Schaller decided to take advantage of this extra chance to return to the gridiron.
“They want to get another snap under their belts. You’ve got to love that,” said head coach Dan MacNeill of the two players after putting the defending New Jersey Athletic Conference co-champions through a three-hour pad-less practice session.
The fact that the Red Dragons enter this season with high expectations — voted as the NJAC favorites and ranked in the Top 25 by two different pre-season Division III national pollsters — helped lure Jablonski and Schaller back to the team.
“I thought this was going to be a pretty good team and that was part of it, plus I wanted to play in a Cortaca Jug game again, especially this year because it’s the 50th anniversary,” said Jablonski, referring to the annual skirmish between Cortland and rival Ithaca College referred to as “The Biggest Little Game in America.”
“I saw how good this team could be this year and that played a role in my decision,” admitted Schaller. “This is a team that could make a run in the NCAAs.”
The Red Dragons, who have 14 starters returning from an outfit that finished 8-3 a year ago, will open the season visiting Morrisville State on Saturday, Sept. 6.
JABLONSKI POINTS OUT he is even older than a couple of assistant coaches on the Red Dragon staff, such as former teammate and past Cortland linebacker Bill Hauser. In his last full season in 2005, when the Red Dragons reached the NCAA Division III playoffs, he blocked six kicks and was in on 57 tackles.
Then before his senior year started, he injured his ankle during a summer basketball game. He tried to play through the pain before an MRI revealed the ankle was fractured. “I knew the injury was so bad that I thought I would never be able to play again,” he admits.
Jablonski was coaching modified football at a Buffalo area school and looking for a fulltime teaching position, and was also healthy enough to think about that year of eligibility he still had.
“I talked to some of the other coaches there and they said if they could go back and play they’d do it and not have any regrets,” noted Jablonski.
Then talking football and being involved with folks like Hauser about Cortland football “got that itch going again,” to use Jablonski’s phrase.
Having time to mend was important, too. “I needed the extra year to completely heal,” he says.
Back in May Jablonski gave himself a 48-hour deadline to decide what to do, a decision the Dean’s List student made in only two hours time by his own estimation. It would take him a couple of more weeks to gather the courage to inform his parents he was going to return to college football.
And the decision was made harder when his alma mater, West Seneca West, offered him a full-time teaching position just last week at the recommendation of his high school football coach. But there he was yesterday afternoon back at it, healthy again and hoping the rust from not having played in two seasons was not evident.
And when this first day back was over, Jablonski would say: “I’m ready to put on the pads on right now.”
SCHALLER HAD SOME moments of success as a sophomore, recalling with a smile when he had an interception and was in on a sack during a 31-0 win over William Paterson. But it has been a while since he has placed all his focus on this game.
“It’s kind of brand new all over again,” he says, the task made easier because he knew this current senior class of Red Dragons when they were mere rookies to the program. Though he turned 23 back on Aug. 1, he certainly is not being treated as one of the older guys.
“I feel like a freshman,” admitted Schaller. “There is a ton of senior leadership on this team and I’m trying to fit in with those guys and hope to be a leader myself.”
Schaller tried to balance football and basketball during his first two years at Cortland, then decided to pay full attention to the basketball court. “The decision I made a couple of years ago I don’t regret at all,” he says.
But when he went on the inter-net and discovered he could play one more semester of football, he printed out the form and hung it on his wall as inspiration to get ready. After being accepted to grad school a chat with Coach MacNeill opened the door for his return.
Now he’s just trying to make the most of this chance.
“Right now I’m at the bottom of the depth chart and have to work my say back up,” said Schaller. “They’re not treating me like a veteran, but like a player with some past experience.”
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